Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Round of 8 cutoff race at Phoenix Raceway was a wild bout of up-and-downs for the five drivers vying to secure the fourth and final spot in the Championship 4 at Miami next weekend.
Here’s an analysis of how the races played out for Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski as they battled to be the one still racing for a title next week.
Start of race
Ryan Blaney: 1st
Chase Elliott: 4th
Denny Hamlin: 2nd
Jimmie Johnson: 12th
Brad Keselowski: 16th
Analysis: Blaney backed up his Phoenix speed from the spring (when he qualified second) by winning the pole — a great start for a team that needed a spark in a near must-win situation. Hamlin joining him on the front row added some pressure to stay out front for the No. 21 team. Elliott put himself in position to compete for a race win, which he needed, while Johnson could’ve used a better starting spot. Keselowski just needed to maintain his points lead, so a starting position of 16th wasn’t a race-breaker.
Stage 1 finish
Analysis: Blaney dropped back in the field considerably after struggling to find the speed in race trim that his No. 21 Ford showed in qualifying trim — not a good sign for his title hopes. Hamlin and Elliott about maintained their positioning toward the front of the field, but the rivals racing so close to each other put each of them in a dicey spot … but more on that in a minute. Johnson started the slow climb toward the front while Keselowski dropped back slightly, falling behind Hamlin for the first time for the provisional Championship 4 berth.
Stage 2 finish
Comment: Hamlin was cruising in the middle of this race, as he snatched up the Stage 2 win and led a whopping 193 laps when all was said and done. At this point, Hamlin would have been in the Championship 4 if the results stayed the same. Elliott dropped back a bit while Keselowski moved up slightly. The big takeaway here was Johnson cutting a tire just before the conclusion of Stage 2. His No. 48 Chevrolet hit the wall, took heavy damage and just like that, the race for eight was pushed to 2018. Down to four drivers.
Exhilarating Moment: Elliott passes Hamlin on Lap 270
Comment: Things shifted tremendously again on Lap 270, when newfound rivals Elliott and Hamlin gave credence to the old saying “rubbin’ is racing.” The pair traded a considerable amount of paint before Elliott was able to maneuver his No. 24 Chevrolet past Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota — but not without consequence for Hamlin, who was forced into the wall. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver came away from the duel with a tire rub that eventually blew and sent his car — arguably the strongest in the race — into the wall on Lap 275. Elliott vaulted into contention for the win, and Hamlin was sent to a 35th-place finish. From first to 35th in a minute’s time. And then there were three.
Exhilarating Moment: Matt Kenseth passes Elliott on Lap 303
Comment: Elliott took over the lead from Kenseth — who had led for 52 straight circuits — on Lap 284. The 21-year-old driver appeared set to ride his way to his first career Monster Energy Series win and a berth in the Championship 4, leading the next 19 laps. Heartbreak hit once again for Elliott, however, as he couldn’t hold off the eventual race-winner, Kenseth, with less than 10 laps remaining. The No. 24 pressed Kenseth’s No. 20 as the final laps ticked off, but in the end Elliott came up just short. He placed one spot short of what he needed to advance.
End of race
Comment: It’s hard to believe that out of the five drivers looking to clinch a Championship 4 berth at Phoenix, just one of them finished in the top 15. It’s even harder to believe that he isn’t the one that is moving on to Miami, despite notching a runner-up finish. Keselowski is the one moving on after starting and finishing 16th. The 2012 champ knew he didn’t need to push for a solid finish on Sunday; just maintain a steady, above average pace and he’d be fine as long as one of his playoff competitors didn’t win the race. That strategy worked, and the Team Penske driver will join Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. in South Beach.